One of its stars, Jamie Parker, seen most recently on stage playing Prince Hal in Henry V at Shakespeare’s Globe, and on screen in the BBC’s Parade’s End, takes time out from rehearsals to discuss going back to school, keeping a grip on sanity, and spending time in the company of the devil…
How are preparations going for opening night?
It’s getting to that time where you just want to get on set. During rehearsals you go through this process of raking stuff up and opening yourself out. Then you get on stage and suddenly you’re back on the first day of school again because it’s a new environment. Also, you need an audience to start telling you what the hell you’re doing. You can rehearse the beats and the changes of gear till the cows come home, but until you’ve got it in front of an audience, the play doesn’t exist.
How are you finding the Playhouse?
I’ve never worked here before; but I’m from Darlington, and came here once or twice growing up. It’s a terrifically epic theatre. It does suit anything that’s unashamedly large-scale. If nothing else, Cat is going to look and sound completely gorgeous. The sound will be very rich and evocative of a real time and place. We’ve got everything going for us in that respect.
What is it like to work with Sarah Esdaile?
She’s fantastically thorough. Plus she’s a huge fan of the play. Textually, Cat is very complex and it went through a lot of development over the decades. Sarah’s done vast amounts of research, even before we started rehearsals, and she’s brought all of that into the room.
So how does the stage version of Cat compare to the film?
Tennessee Williams famously didn’t like the film because he felt it resolved way too much. It was all tied up with a big bow and you had the solution to one man’s psychological problem. By the end of the film it was all sorted out, which he didn’t want to do at all. The play is fantastically more ambiguous.
Tell me about your character, Brick?
He’s an elusive bastard! Williams describes him as having the charm of the defeated, which is a wonderfully unhelpful abstract! He’s an alcoholic and he’s not yet reconciled himself to the world. That makes him desperate, detached and infuriatingly unavailable, as well as self-glamourising, petulant and a long list of other deeply unattractive things. Yet somehow in manifesting that behaviour he makes himself even more charming. It’s a very hard thing to play and I have no idea whether or not I’m succeeding!
Do you prefer to immerse yourself in a character like that, or do you find it necessary to leave him behind at the end of each day?
I’m paraphrasing, but writer Rebecca West said “only half of us is sane and wants to live in a house that we build for our children. The other half of us is insane and wants to burn it all to the ground and laugh while we do it”. It’s that half of the brain, which is a strange place to live for weeks on end. It’s a treacherous road because you have to find a way of giving yourself to it, but at the same time you’ve got to be able to leave it behind and go back to life. I think I had slightly more of an idea of what I was letting myself in for this time around, so I was a bit more prepared.
For those unfamiliar with the work of Tennessee Williams, do you think Cat is a good introduction?
I do think it’s a good introduction because it’s the best one. It’s a play I’ve wanted to get my hands on ever since I saw it, 15-20 years ago. It should be gloriously, entertainingly cathartic. The family is so obscenely horrible to each other, especially by act three, that you’re glorying in the awfulness of it all! And there is something theatrically releasing about that; especially in England, where we have such long fuses. The class system, etiquette and gentility of the Deep South have something in common with that; it’s very Anglo Saxon.
On a similar topic, did you find it a culture shock to move straight from Shakespeare to the Deep South?
Well, I’m going from playing a bloke who has a grip on his life and surmounts difficulties with charm, grace and dignity to playing a bloke who has absolutely no grip on his life whatsoever! But you can’t play the same thing forever. At the Globe, we had to pretend it was winter in northern France, but it was 30-something degrees. I had armour and a fur cloak on and I was trying not to pass out from heat exhaustion! Coming to Leeds, it is October and I’m wearing pyjamas trying to pretend it’s really hot! It’s part of the ridiculousness of it all!
In terms of your future plans, does the success of BBC’s Parade’s End, tempt you towards more screen work, or will theatre still be a priority?
The times I’ve tried to manufacture and control events too closely, or chase after things too mechanically, it’s never quite panned out the way I was hoping. At the moment there’s a window of roles coming up in theatre, but I’m trying not to grip too hard at the moment and just seeing want happens next. At some point you learn not to panic; or at least not panic quite so readily. You get good reviews, or bad reviews; you’re out of a job, you’re in a job. You still have to go into the theatre every day and pull something out of the bag. That was quite bleak…that was Brick coming into the room!
So finally, in your own words, why should audiences come to Cat on a Hot Tin Roof? There’s something completely and utterly beguiling about it. I think it’s a chance to say the unsayable and to be slightly turned on by it; it’s a very sexy play. It’s also quite fun spending an evening in the company of the devil.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is on at the West Yorkshire Playhouse from 6 to 27 October 2012. For tickets, contact the box office on 0113 2137700, or visit www.wyp.org.uk.